My Steve Martin ‘thing’ probably peaked around 1989. I had just found his ‘Live!’ video (bought on the same day as The Blue Nile’s Hats, if memory serves) and loved his Wild And Crazy Guy LP, ‘borrowed’ from a family friend.
‘Live!’ was taken from a September 1978 gig at the Universal Amphitheatre, Los Angeles (supported on the night by The Blues Brothers), when Steve was about as big as a comedian can get. He was even on the cover of People magazine (or ‘Screw Up Your Life’ magazine, as he called it).
Back then, if there’d been anything like the marketing machine of today, he could have retired on the sales of Steve Martin bunny ears, Lucky Astrology Mood Watches or arrows-through-the-head alone.
So how did he do it? Or should that be why? As the cliché goes, maybe America was ready for stupid jokes after Vietnam and Watergate. Someone once said that Steve brought surrealism to the masses. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that movies like ‘Airplane’ wouldn’t have happened without him. But he had a philosophical, post-modern approach too, often starting out with the punchline and then working backwards – or never supplying one at all.
And he was a pretty damn decent magician, musician and juggler too.
And of course he was basically ‘in character’ on stage, an uptight, arrogant white guy in a white suit (remind you of anyone? Stop Making Sense indeed, though apparently the suit idea came from one-time roommate Martin Mull…). During the ‘with-it’, drug-fuelled 1970s, Steve was desperately trying (and failing) to ‘get down’, to be hip, cool and one step ahead of the audience. But the character generally failed, becoming grouchy and out of his depth, hence the famous ‘Excuuuuuuse…meeeeee!’ catchphrase.
Steve was also a Philosophy Major (I can’t say for sure if it influenced my choice to study the subject at university, but with hindsight maybe it did…) and his reminiscences of ‘the intellectual thing’ used to make me laugh a lot. ‘I studied the ethical questions: Is it OK to yell “Movie!” in a crowded fire house? The religious questions: Does the pope sh*t in the woods?’
Then there were the albums – his friend and movie producer Bill McEuen had been recording gigs since the mid-’70s. By ’76, Warner Bros were sniffing around. Again, it’s easy to forget how far ahead of his time Martin was here – stand-up comedy albums were extremely rare at the time, and he didn’t just enjoy some success but smashed it out of the park: Let’s Get Small, A Wild & Crazy Guy and Comedy Is Not Pretty all went either gold or platinum (and were almost impossible to find in the UK until fairly recently – I had to buy them at the much-lamented J&R Music World during a trip to New York in the mid-1990s).
By 1981’s The Steve Martin Brothers album, the game was up – it was his worst and lowest-selling record. Steve got out of stand-up and into movies. Again, he was way ahead of the curve and extremely influential – you could make a good case for the ’80s scene being wholly driven by comedian-turned-actors: Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, John Candy, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Barry Levinson, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd etc etc.
Since then, Steve has ploughed his own path, writing books, playing the banjo, getting into ‘serious’ acting with some aplomb (‘Grand Canyon’, ‘The Spanish Prisoner’). Some people will never forgive him. Dennis Pennis spoke for many when he zapped Steve with this cruel zinger in the late 1990s:
But hey, that’s my homage to Steve. And if there weren’t enough jokes for you… Excuuuuuse…meeee!